kennedy_car

Inner Space

By

In his children’s book This is Cape Canaveral (1963), Miroslav Sasek wrote, “On the east coast of Florida, 190 miles north of Miami, you enter a land of giants, of science-fiction-turned-fact, among whose denizens are the Atlas, the Thor, the Saturn, the Polaris, the Redstone, the Titan, the Jupiter. Their language includes mystic incantations such as AFMTC, ICBM, IRBM, NASA. This is the land of satellites, space vehicles and spacemen, ‘Space Capital of the World,’ ‘Gateway to the Moon,’ ‘U.S. Spaceport No. One’—Cape Canaveral.”

***

Jeannie just told him what her home was like. “It must have been wild in those days,” Major Tony Nelson offers. At this point the ingénue genie puts a finger to her dimple, and bats her eyes. In that way, which is to say, magically, she remakes Tony’s living room into a Baghdadi party some 2,000 years ago. It’s at least the Western 1960s idea of what that was. There suddenly in his midcentury space are pointed arches, rich drapery, and sultry women rocking their hips and pinching zils. Men play woodwinds. Men service the room with platters of meat and fruit; they wear turbans, vests, and sirwal (MC Hammer pants). Nelson protests: “Jeannie, stop. We don’t do this in Cocoa Beach!” —this is in the television show’s pilot, “The Lady in the Bottle,” which aired September 18, 1965. The genie had, tells a narrator, “followed him back to Cocoa Beach, a mythical town in a mythical state called Florida.”

***

In the small, Central Florida town I am from, there is a local donut shop called Sip n’ Dip. The tables used to be orange laminate, the seats were cheap faux bois, and on the left wall, there was a mural. “THE DIPPER” scene was a NASA orbiter (a space-plane sans its boosters and orange fuel tank); a claw craned from out the orbiter’s backside, reaching to dunk a sprinkled donut into a cup of black coffee. A few years ago, the donut shop changed hands and was remodeled; the mural is still there, but the color has gone out of it some.

***

Growing up here, shuttles were like birds. Legendary firebirds that resembled gulls and sped man to the heavens. In the mid-century, photographers at Cape Canaveral’s press site were dubbed “birdwatchers,” and with telescopic lenses, they tried to capture it.

***

In 1962, Kennedy Space Center, née the Launch Operations Directorate, set up house on the cape’s sandy headland; soon, the towns of Titusville and Cocoa Beach came along, direct descendants, clinging to the Space Center’s skirt, being fed by her, growing under her eye. Most of Brevard County—Titusville, Cocoa, Rockledge, Cape Canaveral, Merritt Island, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, through Palm Bay—was christened Florida’s “Space Coast.” By 1998, it had outgrown the 407 area code and needed another. Robert Osband—to other locals “Ozzie”—rallied for an assignation that echoed the countdown to liftoff. 3, 2, 1. Who could’ve denied that good sense? The next year in Tallahassee, W’s little brother, who was governor, started a teleconference with the Space Center—thus placing the first call into the new code. Jeb smiled. The area code, he said, was a “simple, bold idea to recognize Florida’s space industry.” And Brevard liked the sound of 321: magic go words.

***

When the flight wasn’t, at the last moment, scrubbed as we knew it would be, Florida license plates pulled over on the shoulders. We cared like we had not cared in years. The right hand shoulder of US-1 toward Titusville was packed, and Florida drivers can’t parallel park (everyone knows). What you saw were vehicles pitched stupidly between palms and palmetto fringe. The farther away from the Cape and from Kennedy, the more thinned-out they were, so it looked as if an inordinate amount of people were having car trouble on July 8, 2011. In the sky, the fire was the precise color of oranges. Within seconds, Atlantis rocketed through the ceiling of clouds; she left us.

***

Here in Florida, even the sun is a ball of citrus hanging gloriously, but going down, threatening to fall and rot and take its brightness with it.

***

On the Space Coast, in Cocoa Beach, you see the push to rebrand as a hotspot for ecotourism. We can offer you surfing, windsurfing, kayaking, kiteboarding, parasailing, stand-up paddle boarding—lessons, rentals, tours. Name it. In the rivers and the lagoons, manatees roll over and solicit belly rubs like dogs. Dolphins arch their backs like cats, their Pinocchio noses pointing out to sea, toward the pink and purple offing that encourages us. In our ocean, the sharks don’t bite.

***

The other titan that departs from Here to Elsewhere is the cruise ship. The Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Disney lines each have ships based in Port Canaveral. The “funships” visit Caribbean paradises before returning to homeport. Every ship in these fleets is more than eight hundred feet long, which means, it’s a sixth of a mile you see there, slinking in and out of port like the mighty, fallen. When the Disney vessels set off, they do so with fanfare, their horns honking “When you wish upon a star . . .” (on that note, the tune ends). People working in buildings on the port’s bank—say, at Lockheed Martin—tic their heads upon overhearing its strain, or roll their eyes. Perhaps they laugh outright, yuk yuk yuk . . . like Goofy.

***

Thanks to Russian goodwill, American astronauts can still make space. From now on, they will launch and land from the desert steppe in Kazakhstan. It is maybe a fun turn for history to take, given how feverishly we raced Russia to the moon. But then, I Dream of Jeannie was an exercise in one-upmanship, too; it was NBC, banking on the idea that a genie would prove as bewitching as the uncommonly enchanting housewife on ABC. For every time Samantha wiggled her nose, Jeannie blinked.

.***

Jeannie is sunning on the patio. She’s suspended three feet in the air on a pink and white striped beach towel (like a magic carpet)—when a toy rocket comes crashing down beside her. Fearful she’ll be seen, Tony tells Jeannie “get out’a here”; and she does, just as their 8-year old neighbor enters to recover his craft. Tony cools. “What went wrong?” he asks the boy. “Fuel trouble,” the boy says, “I guess I didn’t mix enough vinegar with baking soda.” We can sense Tony’s approval. He is performing avuncular male, clasping the right arm of his freckled neighbor, a boy who thinks, if monkeys and mice can do it, hey, kids should be able to go up too. The scene is not just made-for-TV. People have had their eye on the moon for as long as we’ve been on this planet, but in 1965, when Jeannie went on the air, we were close. A Russian cosmonaut had walked in space that year. Our nerve was being reflected back to us by the best index of American psyche—our popular toys. In 1965, Barbie and Ken became astronauts; hundreds of thousands of toy rockets were sent sky-high. “We choose to go to the moon,” our young, dead president’s voice thrilled. “We chooz to go to the moon in this deh-cade.

***

Major Tony Nelson is asked what he thinks he’ll be doing twenty years from now: “Probably flying economy tours to Mars,” he answers. It was still 1965. Twenty-one years later and 73 seconds into ascent, Challenger tore apart into a Y.

***

“It’s called technology,” Nelson explains. “Technology . . . ,” Jeannie tries the word. “Is that a kind of magic?”

***

A woman says to Captain Tony Nelson: “Why anyone would ever want to be an astronaut in the first place, darling—I’ll never know.” “I guess I always want to be above everything,” he replies.

***

About 8,000 jobs have been divested and are no longer tied to cosmic adventures. I think the feeling in Cocoa Beach is of impotence. When the Cocoa Beach Chamber of Commerce says much of the area’s traffic comes from the Midwest, they mean, The town is hurting, and we’ve got to bring in those tourists. The local temper, though, is barely masked with smiles and pleases. Please, have a seashell chandelier. Suspend it above your Ohioan breakfast table; swat at it in your cold-titted winter. Think of us.

***

Jeannie to her sister, in the episode “How to Marry An Astronaut” (1968): “What are you doing here in Cocoa Beach?”

***

Jeannie eats popcorn on an avocado-colored banquette. She is watching actual NASA footage of Tony’s mission on a matching avocado television set. (The carpet, too, is avocado.) Onscreen, the launch roars. In Houston, mission control’s panels of computers and its MIT men: white shirts, dark ties, headsets. Now the manned capsule is above everything, where everything is a delicate blue planet laced over with clouds. Now a Navy chopper—raising up—above the battleship tarmac—going to pick up our boys . . . Finally! We are seeing an orange parachute. The canopy opens like a sudden marigold. The bottle stopper-shape slows, falls elegantly into the teal Atlantic, as the broadcaster announces: “The capsule has just come into view of our cameras, and it looks as if it’ll land right on target. Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief now, because everything seems to be A-OK here as astronauts Tony Nelson and Roger Healey chalk up another successful US mission. This one went off without a hitch from start to finish.” Of course, because Jeannie cannot wait to see Tony, she blinks herself into the capsule, onto his lap. “Jeannie, what are you doing?” She throws her arms around him. “If you do not know, I must be doing it wrong!” This episode aired October 3, 1967.

***

Roger walks into Tony’s office: “Oh! Hi, Jeannie. What are you doing here?” “Nothing,” she says. “I am out of season.”

***

Looking through the porthole, astronauts have described a planet so like a blueberry. A marble. A pea. A pearl. Earth is “a Christmas tree ornament,” they’ve gushed. And she is “absolutely round.”

***

Seen from a tender age, seen enough, forms are reduced in the mind’s eye. Reduced, until the very outline or the silhouette of the state of Florida, or Mickey Mouse’s head, or Space Shuttles are as fundamental and recognizable as circles, squares, and triangles.

***

In and around Cocoa Beach, you see vestiges of the Space Program. A local McDonald’s boasts a playground constructed to look like a NASA Space Shuttle orbiter. OFF PRICE SHELLS, a big box at the intersection of state roads 520 and A1A, has NASA paraphernalia painted in its orange-trimmed Alamo-style marquee: scaled-down satellites, astronauts, rockets, shuttles. In that marquee, outer space is a matte Persian blue. (Who knew?) The Cape’s Beatification Board has installed a four-foot long mock-up of a Space Shuttle out in front of its town hall. Seagulls laze on the model, looking askance, then fly away. When you pick up your beer at one burger joint or another, encircled in a ring of wet, you may see a wee shuttle airbrushed on your table and sealed beneath polyurethane. If pulled over in Cocoa Beach for running a red light, notice an embroidered badge of a shuttle on your officer’s bicep. It is to say, This’s what we are capable of. Also, “Challenger • Columbia”: the state license plate in memoriam to those shuttles and crews—at red lights, sometimes, you can watch them fly.

***

But there are not “OUT TO LAUNCH” signs on establishment doors here anymore. No “COUNTDOWN TO LAUNCH” billboards; you won’t hear of Floridian youths who want to grow up to become astronauts, and, let us face it . . . it’s been decades since patrons pushed into restrooms designated for “ASTRONAUTS” and “ASTRONETTES.” I did see, last week, “COCOA BEACH SPECIAL WEEKEND GETAWAY $30.00,” an A-frame sign on the sidewalk with a Space Shuttle gunning out of Jeannie’s bottle on it, a weird and pitiful last-gasp at the two celebrities (at celebrity). Even as I write, Shuttles Dugout Sports Bar and Grill, in Merritt Island—just over the bridge on your way out of Cocoa Beach—shuts down and hangs up FOR SALE signs. The restaurant had been a favorite of NASA employees since the 1980s.

***

<em>Credit: NASA/Ben Cooper</em>

It’s 1994. The sky is Monet-ed from red-yellow to pool blue. According to procedure, everything was on the button. Numbers ten through one were recited backwards. The rocket boosters fired precisely at t-minus 7, and there was such an awesome amount of smoke. It’s still lathered high around the launchpad. Discovery’s up, you see. Discovery is shooting for the stars. But in the front row, uncaringly, palm trees toss their fronds. They are like Catholic schoolgirls unmoved by liturgy.

***

In mid-September 2009, after a two-day wait, it is thunderstorming in Cape Canaveral. Discovery cannot stall any longer. She unmates from the International Space Station, homes in on the pretty planet, diverts 2,000 miles to alight in the warm Mojave Desert. Discovery’s the oldest surviving fleet member—they call her their “workhorse”—and she will fly thirty-nine missions before program’s-end. Right now, she has time. And tricks. Next year, in broad daylight, Discovery will tie a knot in the sky with her contrail. A nebula pink, orange, white, and blue, that gets our attention.

***

In 2008, Atlantis was scheduled for decommission. The shuttle had had it. But, when it became apparent the Space Program would conclude, NASA kept the old bird on—the shuttle’s retirement was re-slated for 2010. And yet certain yellow stars must have lined up like ducks in a row, because Atlantis got to fly the program’s last mission in 2011. The shuttle’s final destination is its very own retirement in the Sunshine State, the Visitor Complex at Kennedy Space Center. When I saw the site this spring, it was in early construction and looked passably Martian. Orange signboards on the fencing read, “pardon our dust As We Build The New Home For ATLANTIS Launching Summer 2013,” and, “A New Home For An Extraordinary Flying Machine,” and somewhere nearby, much to my distraction, Atlantis was parked in a hanger.

***

There is a Tijuana Flats on State Road 520, not ten minutes before the road intersects with A1A; you could turn right at that point, and would see the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop immediately on your left. A couple of months ago this Tijuana Flats was still painted in a crazed dinosaur motif. When you walked inside the restaurant, the entire right wall was a triptych mural. The nearest section featured a purple triceratops, running amok down Cocoa Beach Pier, and people, running away from it—you could hear their flip flops smacking the sun-baked wood. In the wall’s midsection, an orange raptor sat toweling itself off on a Port Canaveral cruise ship,  weighing the liner low in the warm, topaz chop. On the very left: green pterodactyls flew away from a launching shuttle. No doubt, the dinosaurs knew something of era’s end. When I spoke with one of the managers a couple of months earlier, she indicated her location was getting ready to repaint. Even over the space-related mural? I’d wanted to know. Oh. She was going to try and fight that, the manager had said, “because it’s history.” But several weeks later the wall was whited out.

***

This is tidal. In 1969, Newsweek reported the Sea Missile’s daily rate had reduced from $15 to $5; the week before, only two of the formerly happening motel’s fifty-five rooms had been occupied (by two couples from Iowa). Houses, rockets, everything stopped going up. After the Apollo program was dropped in 1972, an estimated 10,000 families packed their bags and quit Brevard County altogether. The tide went out. 1973-1975 saw a nationwide malaise, the conclusion of the boom that had followed WWII, and during that time Brevard’s unemployment rate hit 12 percent. Of course, the tide came back in the ’80s, when NASA rolled out its Space Transportation System (STS). The Space Shuttles made their sensational debut then; Cocoa Beach enjoyed a robust economy once more. And now? Another national recession. I write this in January 2012, when unemployment in Brevard hovers above 10 percent. Another NASA program has ended, and the tide is far out.

***

In one 1966 episode, Major Tony Nelson fêtes a Middle Eastern princess whose country NASA is hoping will agree to host a satellite-tracking station. “I admire a man who is not afraid to explore new frontiers,” the princess tells Tony. “That is the reason I was so eager to see Koko Beech.

***

Sloughing off the weight of the world in matte, Persian blue space was just a perk—this I’ll tell you. We loved the performance on the ground. For that reason, and because the local economy is unsatisfied, Brevard Country, namely Cocoa Beach, was looking to advance its career in Hollywood in 2012. If all had gone according to plan, a significant number of upcoming films would have built their sets in Brevard. But of course, it did not.

.***

“Dr. Bellows,” Major Healy says, “I wanted to ask a favor in case the splashdown is delayed. Would you mind calling the Surf restaurant and having them hold a table for me? We’re having a little party after the flight, and they get pretty testy about holding reservations.”

***

Despite incessant mention of Cocoa Beach by the characters, I Dream of Jeannie was shot in Hollywood and in Burbank, California. The cast and crew visited their purported location only twice, both times in 1969. The first visit, on June 27th, progressed like so: Barbara Eden, who played Jeannie, toured Kennedy Space Center and the Air Force Space and Missile Museum. At Patrick Air Force Base—“The United States Air Force and Pan American Welcome ‘Jeannie’ to Complex 43”—Eden pushed the button to launch a weather rocket. Afterward, she and other cast members met fans and city officials at Cocoa Beach Town Hall. They dined at a landmark restaurant in Cocoa Beach, Bernard’s Surf on A1A (a restaurant that shuttered its doors only last year, and whose building remains vacant). That night, in June 1969, Eden kissed astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the cheek. “I can do better than that,” he promised, and pulled her to him, and landed one on her lips. A little less than a month in the future, during the Apollo 11 mission, first Neil Armstrong and then Aldrin would walk on the moon.

***

Jeannie and company’s second 1969 visitation was a ploy. After five years, the show’s ratings had slumped; the action they needed was to marry Jeannie and Tony in the real Cocoa Beach. I Dream of Jeannie Lane is the leftmost “street” in the parking lot of Lori Wilson Park, off of A1A on the beachside. You can hardly call it a street. It was given to Barbara Eden when she returned to Cocoa Beach in 1996 for a followup, and the city declared a holiday: “Jeannie Day.” Would you not also call that a ploy?

***

The new mural at the Tijuana Flats pictures a blonde woman in a futurist silver suit. She’s zapping alien saucers with a FACE MELTER 9000. Her nails are hot pink—the same color is fierced beneath her eyes—and her chest buoys up. Behind her is what remains of the twenty-one story tall NASA Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The complex has been hit. It has chunks taken out of it and is crumbled. Of the NASA insignia—a solid blue circle with “NASA” wedged between a red chevron, encircled by a white orbit track and specked with stars—only the NA is intact.

.***

On November 27th, 2011, it was still dark at the 40th Space Coast Marathon and Half-Marathon when some very hydrated people queued before the race for Port-O-Lets. Everyone was shod in sneakers. To their right, a NASA moon bounce sat puffed up but empty. Attendants stood around in orange NASA jumpsuits. At 6:15 a.m., as the bruise of sky was brightening, Atlantis astronaut Mike McCulley counted down to start the marathon. The runners received Space Shuttle medallions at the finish line, medals that hung heavily around-neck as the runners schlepped over to a complimentary breakfast tent, where they accepted plates of scrambled eggs, pancakes and sausages, with shaking hands. The shuttle model from town hall was there. While the sky had bursted lightning during the early stretch of the race, it poured only warm, golden light now.

***

“You know, Anthony?” says Nelson’s TV mother. “There’s something about the Cocoa Beach climate that is amazing.”

***

Looking up at it go, you hooded your eyes with your hand against the glare. It looked like a salute. When your other hand floated to your chest, you seemed to be pledging to the space-plane.

***

This May, I found myself in Titusville at the Kennedy Space Center, with friends visiting from Denmark. The uncrowd of the Florida preseason did not make it feel better, nor the fact that, almost annoyingly, KSC has commissioned whole ceilings and walls to appear in starry, starry dark. What do you even say? The Danes were admiring a full-size model of the Orion crew capsule when I blurted how, in America, we used to have a show about a genie and an astronaut based in Cocoa Beach. Lars grinned. “Ah, yes. With Larry Hagman.”

***

Larry Hagman’s Tony is trying to get out the door but Jeannie keeps embracing him. “Good luck, good luck! And say ‘hello’ to the man on the moon for me!” she bids him.

***

It’s this. What Larry replied Barbara haunts me: “Jeannie,” he said, almost laughing, “there’s no man on the moon.” Why? I was holding my breath. Why should that line needle me? The Danes and I were on a bus then, touring the acres of gray facilities and launch site. In the long green retention ditches, long green gators; I’d stopped counting after “9.” I will tell you who’s happy most of the commotion is over: It’s these cold-blooded reptiles. The Space Center’s estuarine grounds double as a National Wildlife Refuge, home to unnumbered alligators; before shuttle landings—couldn’t you guess?—it was the detail of a special crew to clear from the runway any such sunbathers. “But it’s launches, the low-frequencies from the launches” the bus driver told us, “that really rattles them.” We feel it, I thought. It was at that point the driver recited Da Vinci. “Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward; for there you have been, and there you long to return.” “O!” I overheard the man seated in front of me, his accent plainly Minnesotan. “That’s rich.” His wife turned her head from the window to face him. I couldn’t see her expression. All she said was, “Larry!,” and turned back to the window.

***

Images one and two from This is Cape Canaveral (1963), Miroslav Sasek

Photographs three and four by NASA

Update Required
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.

Chantel is an MFA Writing Candidate at SCAD. Her work has appeared at Witness, NANO Fiction, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. She is at work on a cultural biography of Copenhagen's Little Mermaid statue. More from this author →